WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump said Thursday that personal attorney Michael Cohen handles very little of his legal work, but did represent him in the “crazy Stormy Daniels deal,” a rare presidential public reference to the porn star who claims she had sex with the president in 2006.
Prosecutors in New York quickly claimed Trump's early-morning comments buttress their arguments that not much of the material that the FBI seized from Cohen's home, office and hotel should be protected by attorney-client privilege. Within two hours of Trump's interview, the prosecutors submitted papers in court citing Trump's comments.
Trump's remarks prompted fresh questions about his relationship with Cohen in the tangle of legal dealings involving the president, his legal fixer and the porn star. And they served as just the latest demonstration of the potential legal risks for Trump when he makes off-the-cuff statements about the case in interviews and on Twitter.
In a call-in interview with “Fox & Friends,” Trump spoke about his relationship with Cohen, saying the lawyer handles “a tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work, then added: “like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal he represented me. And, you know, from what I see he did absolutely nothing wrong. There were no campaign funds going into this which would have been a problem.”
Cohen paid Daniels, whose legal name is Stephanie Clifford, $130,000 days before the 2016 election in exchange for her silence about an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. He now faces a series of legal actions, including an effort from Daniels to invalidate the nondisclosure deal. There's also a criminal investigation of Cohen in New York, which prompted the recent FBI raid.
Trump has previously denied any knowledge of the payment. The White House has consistently denied the affair.
While Trump may have increased the chances that his communications with Cohen on the subject of Daniels are subject to attorney-client privilege by acknowledging that he was being represented by Cohen on the matter, he may also have undermined arguments that large quantities of other seized materials are subject to the privilege by claiming Cohen handled little of his legal work.
Either way, said trial attorney Joseph Cammarata, he would be better off speaking less.
“The more you say, the more you have an opportunity to be cross-examined on it,” said Cammarata, who represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against President Bill Clinton. “You can't get hurt by words you don't speak.”
Judge Kimba Wood said Thursday that she was appointing a former Manhattan federal judge to help determine what materials seized in the FBI raids are subject to attorney-client privilege. The judge noted that the government and Cohen's lawyers agreed that a “special master” was the best way to determine which materials should or shouldn't be off-limits to federal investigators.
Michael Avenatti, Daniels’ attorney, asked the court for permission to be part of the case to determine if there are any materials showing that Daniels’ previous lawyer, who negotiated her confidentiality agreement, violated attorney-client privilege in communications with Cohen. The judge gave prosecutors time to review the motion after Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas McKay told her that so far there was “really no evidence” that Cohen received privileged information about Daniels.
Trump's comment that Cohen represented him in the Daniels matter seemed potentially at odds with his past denial of knowledge about the payment.
Avenatti tweeted that Trump and Cohen “previously represented to the American people that Mr. Cohen acted on his own and Mr. Trump knew nothing about the agreement with my client, the $130k payment, etc. As I predicted, that has now been shown to be completely false.”
Trump's anger over the case has increased in recent weeks as the legal pressure on Cohen mounts. While the president is said to be increasingly worried about the materials seized in the raid and whether Cohen would consider cooperating with prosecutors, he insisted Thursday that the probe was related to Cohen's business and said “I've been told I'm not involved.”
Avenatti told the AP on Thursday, “This is going to add considerable momentum to our effort to depose the president and place him under oath in an effort to discover which version of the facts is accurate.”
Cohen is also dealing with a civil case filed by Daniels, who is seeking to invalidate the confidentiality agreement she signed before the election. He said Wednesday that he would assert his constitutional right against self-incrimination in that case. Daniels is also suing Cohen, alleging defamation.
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